Culture 18 November 2019
It's stating the obvious to point out that women get a bum rap.
We have, for virtually all of recorded history, been treated as frivolous, inconsistent, vain, foolish, or at best cannily deceptive. Entire bodies of literature are devoted to our malignancy, unpredictability, secretiveness, and childishness, painting a picture of a kind of person no one would want to be. In contrast, of course, to all the virtues of men; "virtue" itself derives from the Latin for "man." Perhaps, then, we shouldn't be terribly surprised at how we're spoken of when the language itself treats masculinity as identical to moral worth.
Concurrently, women who want to succeed in a man's world are advised to act, well, like men. We are too emotional, we're told, to be rational; if we want to command respect, we must shed that. We are too willing to compromise; we ought to stand our ground. We are weak; we must be tough, and constant; we are passive-aggressive where naked aggression is superior.
Femininity is weakness. Masculinity is strength.
The last few years, however, have brought a new mainstream acknowledgement of the counterargument through the rise, first in social media and later percolating up to the larger culture, of the term toxic masculinity. It encompasses a wide range of traditionally "masculine" behaviors broadly boiling down to suppressing emotion as a sign of weakness and using violence or the threat of violence as both an assertion of masculinity and a response to it being challenged.
In other words, we're at a place where the traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity as rational and strong versus emotional and weak are being called into question in the larger culture outside academia for the first time. And going right along with that is questioning the value of the traits we have historically valued. Perhaps "hardness," inevitable double entendre aside, isn't the virtue we've been led to believe it is. Perhaps, in fact, it's very much the opposite, and that far from women needing to embrace the public-facing toxicity of maleness – the fear of weakness, vulnerability, feeling, and compassion – men need to take a long hard look at what theologians used to call the "feminine virtues," because I think their stark separation from them is detrimental to men and women alike, fueling cycles of discrimination and abuse that have perpetuated themselves across human history.
It cannot be healthy for men to be starved from touch and emotional intimacy to such a degree that their only source for either is their wives, fomenting possessiveness and violence when that intimacy is denied. It cannot be healthy for men to feel obliged to project toughness, superiority, and dominance. It cannot be healthy to vilify gentleness, or compassion, or empathy, or kindness, or sympathy, or understanding, or compromise, or humility, or affection, or care. Yet all of these, a vast swathe of genuine human experience, are vilified and structurally denied to men unless accompanied by a degree of embarrassment and shame. That is toxic masculinity.
I keep thinking about the phenomenal, billion-dollar success of Oprah Winfrey, who built her empire first and foremost on meeting the emotional needs of her audience. She has, for decades, crafted a niche almost unknown to American culture beforehand: someone who gave voice to women's concerns without dumbing them down or condescending. And as her success grew, we saw in the male-dominated public sphere an increasingly mocking tone in discussion of her; first, laughing at her struggles with weight loss (a stereotypically female concern that she took seriously and discussed frankly), and advancing to mocking the emotional concern she demonstrated for her audience as "therapeutic deism," where "therapeutic" itself – the very idea of taking care of your mental and emotional health – denotes nothing but touchy-feely nonsense that makes you feel good but lacks the hardness of truth. The massive success she's received for meeting this fundamental need, taking women seriously in the process, is itself only evidence of the gullibility of an audience more eager to be told "I'm okay, you're okay" than to confront reality.
Which, even on its face, is massively dismissive, not only of women as a class, but of the very act of taking your emotional life seriously. Men are quick to do that, almost sneering at the word "feelings;" in fact, much of the informal discourse surrounding the discussion of gender relations infantilizes them as "fee-fees." And all that does is reduce emotional life as something not only optional, but demeaning of the subject. Feelings diminish men because feelings are womanly. And we all know how terrified men are of being even remotely womanly.
That underlines the essential fragility of masculinity, a concept theoretically founded on strength and resilience. Representing perfection, it is constantly under threat, weakened by exposure to femininity. If any embrace of "femininity" is demeaning, then that cuts off by fear of censure everything that goes with it, from emotional intimacy to hugging your friends and even to things as simple as self-grooming, lest we forget the "metrosexual," where taking care of your appearance was equated with effeminacy and by extension, homosexuality. Men are amputating critical emotional and social limbs because they don't want anyone to think they're gay.
But "womanly" doesn't need to be a mark against anyone. Women outperform men in ways we might find surprising: we earn more degrees, including at the doctoral level, and we are as a class superlative leaders according to Harvard Business Review, which published a study measuring leadership attributes back in June. There is something in the experience of being a woman that makes us more likely to be motivational, collaborative, supportive, self-improving, and results-oriented, and it's not hard to see why. We are so undervalued and demeaned that we strive to outperform; we are taught from a young age to concern ourselves with the needs of others and compromise, which makes us more likely to be experienced with consensus-building and teamwork; we are told we are inadequate so we are more likely to strive to improve ourselves. In other words, the very traits for which we are held in contempt are traits that make us especially capable in the most male-dominated sphere of all: corporate leadership.
There is a necessary humility in being a woman that comes from our ongoing position at the bottom rung of society. We know, in ways men don't seem to, that we are subject to the whims of others; we know, in ways men simply can't, what it's like to be tossed aside and dismissed. In the best of us, it fuels a desperate ambition that unlocks our vast and untapped potential.
So come on, guys. Embrace your feminine side. You'll find out that it enriches your manhood, and not the other way around. If we can learn to be hard, you can learn to be soft.
You'll be better (and happier) for it.
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Help! My Friend Is a No Show
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I have a friend who doesn't reply to my messages about meeting for dinner, etc. Although, last week I ran into her at a local restaurant of mine, it has always been awkward to be friends with her. Should I continue our friendship or discontinue it? We've been friends for a total four years and nothing has changed. I don't feel as comfortable with her as my other close friends, and I don't think I'll ever be able to reach that comfort zone in pure friendship.
Dear Sadsies,I am sorry to hear you've been neglected by your friend. You may already have the answer to your question, since you're evaluating the non-existing bond between yourself and your friend. However, I'll gladly affirm to you that a friendship that isn't reciprocated is not a good friendship.
I have had a similar situation with a friend whom I'd grown up with but who was also consistently a very negative person, a true Debby Downer. One day, I just had enough of her criticism and vitriol. I stopped making excuses for her and dumped her. It was a great decision and I haven't looked back. With that in mind, it could be possible that something has changed in your friend's life, but it's insignificant if she isn't responding to you. It's time to dump her and spend your energy where it's appreciated. Don't dwell on this friend. History is not enough to create a lasting bond, it only means just that—you and your friend have history—so let her be history!
- The Armchair Psychologist